Chertoff Gets First-Hand Accounts from Gulf Region Fire Fighters

Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, received first-hand accounts of life as a responder from New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish fire fighters and a report on first responder relief efforts from International Association of Fire Fighters General President Harold A. Schaitberger.

Schaitberger invited Chertoff to meet with fire fighters from New Orleans and the Gulf region to hear their stories of struggle and survival firsthand. He heard from fire fighters who stayed behind to do their jobs in the aftermath of Katrina, said Schaitberger. Many of those fire fighters and responders "performed daring rescues and evacuations without seeing or hearing from a single federal agency for many days," he said, adding, "I'm sure he won't soon forget the stories shared with him."

The IAFF has more than 3,000 members in the immediate high impact zone and another 3,000 in the lesser-hit areas. The great majority, about 80 percent, of fire fighters who live in the hard hit areas including New Orleans, St. Bernard and Jefferson Parish, Mandeville, Slidell, Gulfport, and Biloxi suffered either total or almost total loss of their personal property. Despite their personal losses, all were working before, during and after the storm, preparing residents, rescuing and saving lives, clearing trees, and doing all they could for their communities.

"I have been in the region twice immediately following the storm to oversee our union's efforts to support the work of our members, as well as to support them personally. I have been impressed by all that is being done on the ground, from getting supplies to the crews, to helping them track down their loved ones, to providing them with much needed psychological support, to helping them rebuild their lives," said Schaitberger.

Two of the stories told to Secretary Chertoff by fire fighters are:

In St. Bernard Parish, fire fighters said the first 96-120 hours were like being on an island by themselves. St. Bernard Local 1468 fire fighters performed rescues in boats for three days, evacuating about half of the citizens without any outside assistance or resources from federal or state agencies.

"We were on our own," fire fighter and Local President Louis Menesses said. "We had to start taking provisions from our own stores to survive. I slept on the roof of a school for three nights, which was a good place to sleep compared to where some were sleeping."

The first communication St. Bernard fire fighters had with the 'outside world' was with the union. "Luckily one of our guys who was stranded in the Domino Sugar Factory was able to get a cell phone signal and got a call to union Vice President Danny Todd. They came in by tugboat to deliver the first supplies any of us saw. It sounds odd, but the best thing I saw coming down the river was a box of clean underwear and socks from the IAFF," Menesses said.

There is not one livable home among the 35,000 residents. He added, "We have no idea what the future holds."

New Orleans Local 632 President Nick Felton shared stories from the initial days of the storm and what they did in the first hours to respond to building collapses. "Once water started to rise, everything fell apart. The department did not give us any resources. The command structure failed," he said.

Felton finally got in contact with the IAFF command in Baton Rouge, who alerted and worked with the National Guard to get them out. "We were all surprised and relieved that we didn't lose any fire fighters before that rescue," Felton added that 'the command structure broke down – we were literally left to our own devices. Initially, we were able to rescue people by boat, but as the violence escalated, we could no longer even do that because of the threat of armed takeover. My station even came under armed siege and we had to be airlifted out."

"With so much of the city underwater," Felton said, "we are very concerned about the toxic water and what it could do to our members. Dogs, cats, snakes, and alligators who had been swimming in that water have died, and our guys have been in it too," he said.

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